LAFAYETTE — A day before a hearing that decides the fate of Superintendent Pat Cooper’s job, voters ousted four of the six incumbent Lafayette Parish School Board members who will be making that decision in favor of newcomers.
But that doesn’t mean voters necessarily backed the Cooper supporters on the board. Three of the incumbents who were booted from office — Shelton Cobb, Kermit Bouillion, Mark Cockerham — were the three board members in the superintendent’s corner. Hunter Beasley, the board president who regularly votes against the superintendent, also lost his re-election bid.
The Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce and other business interests poured money into the race. But only three of the seven candidates backed by the chamber’s PAC won election, and they were all newcomers — Justin Centanni, District 6; Erick Knezek, District 8; and Jeremy Hidalgo, District 9. The chamber’s PAC also backed Cobb, Bouillion and Cockerham, as well as Erica Williams, who lost to a key Cooper critic, Tehmi Chassion.
The strife between Cooper and a majority of board members has dominated education politics in Lafayette for more than a year. Members voted to investigate the superintendent for various alleged infractions in March, but the probe didn’t get underway until this summer. Since qualifying ended in August, the school board has filed charges against Cooper that could lead to his termination.
Cooper’s disagreements with the board have paralyzed the district’s budget. The school system is operating on 50 percent of last year’s budget, as the superintendent has argued that the budget plan adopted by the board was illegally passed and he has refused to implement it.
For the first time in recent election cycles, all nine district board seats were on the ballot. A field of 20 candidates qualified for an election that saw only three incumbents not seek reelection. Some candidates pushed for change and capitalized on the dysfunction between the current board and Cooper.
During the weeks leading up to the election, some candidates said they sensed that voters may make their decisions based on their stances on Cooper, though they noted that the issues facing the district involve more than the system’s leader. Overcrowded and aging facilities, teacher evaluation changes and budget woes continue to weigh heavily on the growing school system.
The race was defined by the superintendent partially because he kept making news during the election, taking three members to court in an attempt to bar them from voting in a hearing that could result in his firing. A district judge ruled against the superintendent in that quest.
Cooper also has been criticized for wading into school board politics this election season with a racially insensitive remark. At an event last month, he offered his support of one challenger while also decrying what he called a “black Mafia” that he said has a stronghold on voters in the black community.
Black community leaders demanded an apology. Cooper did not apologize, saying that his comment was made in support of Erica Williams, a black candidate taking on incumbent Tehmi Chassion, who is also black and a frequent critic of the superintendent.
While four incumbents lost their bids for re-election, Chassion solidly regained his seat, as did board member Tommy Angelle.
Complete but unofficial results were available in all nine races late Tuesday.
Voters were able to choose from a fresh slate of candidates in three district races without incumbents: Districts 1, 6 and 9.
One of the races, District 1, remains undecided with two candidates from Scott — Mary Morrison, a Democrat, and Don Gagnard, not affiliated with a party — in a run-off. Morrison took 44 percent of the vote, while Gagnard received 37 percent and a third candidate, Redell “Mama” Comeaux Miller captured 19 percent of the vote.
In the other two races, voters narrowly selected Justin Centanni, R-Lafayette, in District 6, while Jeremy Hidalgo won more decisively in District 9.
In the District 6 race, Centanni won the seat with 51 percent of the vote over Kathleen Schott Espinoza, a candidate also from Lafayette who wasn’t affiliated with a party. Hidalgo received 61 percent of the vote over Brian West, R-Lafayette, based on complete but unofficial results.
In District 2, incumbent Tommy Angelle, D-Carencro, easily won his bid for re-election against two challengers with 67 percent of the vote. Angelle faced James Chavis, D-Carencro, and Simon Mahan of Lafayette, who doesn’t belong to a political party.
One race was particularly close. In the District 3 race, Elroy Broussard, D-Lafayette, unseated the incumbent, Shelton Cobb, D-Lafayette, by 63 votes.
Both candidates sought the District 3 seat in a special election in 2008, with Cobb elected to the seat that he won again in 2010 without opposition. Cobb wasn’t as lucky this go-round, and Broussard won the seat with 2,642 votes compared to Cobb’s 2,579 votes.
In District 4, incumbent Tehmi Chassion, D-Lafayette, regained his seat by 940 votes in a race against Erica Williams, D-Lafayette.
Chassion won 3,753 votes, or 57 percent of the vote.
Incumbent Kermit Bouillion, R-Duson, lost his bid for re-election to the District 5 seat to Britt Latiolais, R-Lafayette, who won 60 percent of the votes.
In the District 7 race, challenger Dawn Morris, R-Lafayette, successfully removed Mark Cockerham, R-Lafayette, from his board seat — again. Cockerham resigned from the seat last month following a complaint instigated by Morris over Cockerham’s move out of District 7 during his current term. Cockerham accused Morris of unnecessarily filing a lawsuit against him to give her leverage in the election. Cockerham wanted the court to sanction Morris, but a judge denied the request last week.
Morris received 52 percent of the vote, based on complete but unofficial results.
District 8 incumbent Hunter Beasley of Lafayette, who isn’t affiliated with a party, lost his bid for re-election to newcomer, Erick Knezek, R-Lafayette, a Navy veteran and entrepreneur who campaigned heavily with a sizeable campaign warchest. Knezek is currently serving a one-year appointment on the chambers’s board of directors. Knezek won decisively against the current school board president, taking 75 percent of the vote.
Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.